On Aug 16 2016 by William A. Stock
Picking Winners: Immigration, Citizenship and Olympic Glory
We all know the picture: the proud athlete, standing on the podium, often with tears of joy, listening to the strains of his or her national anthem playing as their country's flag is raised to honor a gold medal achievement. It is a moment of intense national pride for the athlete and for fans in that country, a peak moment of international sporting achievement. The Olympics reinforces that image of national competition and national pride in its opening and closing ceremonies, as athletes march into the arena behind their flags, in uniforms reflecting their national colors and dress.
In the modern Olympics, however, the athlete on the medal stand or marching proudly into the Olympic stadium may not know her own national anthem, or be able to speak with his teammates in their native language. To cite just two examples in Rio: Team Belarus features former Duke standout point guard and WBNA player Lindsay Harding, who obtained Belarusian citizenship last year in order to play for Belarus in Rio, and Kylie Dickson, a California gymnast who was granted Belarusian citizenship and has represented the country in a number of international competitions.
Because countries determine their own rules of citizenship, the modern Olympics have always featured a certain amount of strategic passport-shopping. Most countries in the world follow the citizenship principle of jus sanguinis, the “law of descent,” meaning that an athlete may be able to claim citizenship in a country where only one grandparent ever resided. In more recent times, countries like Belarus and Qatar have aggressively courted athletes with expedited immigration and citizenship rules to allow high achievers to compete under their flags.
Countries may recruit athletes, and aspiring Olympians may seek out countries. At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, it was difficult to determine which teams were most criticized for bending the citizenship rules—was it the German prince who competed in downhill for Mexico, the husband-and-wife cross country ski team who acquired citizenship through investment in the Caribbean island of Dominica and proceeded to found its first-ever national ski team, or was it the spectacle of a South Korean short-track speed skater putting his skills out to the highest bidder (which turned out to be Russia) after a dispute with his national team?
Some argue these citizenship tactics undermine the spirit, if not the rules, of nationality-based competition at the foundation of the Modern Olympic movement. We should not judge other countries too harshly, however. The United States is not above such practices. Our immigration law provides for “green cards” for athletes of “exceptional ability,” which puts them on track to achieve U.S. citizenship in five years—meaning most athletes would “miss their window” to compete in the Olympics, if they were to use their athletic achievements to immigrate. The United States did bend its own rules at least once: in 2005, a temporary amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act allowed Tanith Belbin, a Canadian-born ice dancer whose partner is American, to be naturalized in time for her to compete for Team USA in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino.
Countries recruiting Olympic-quality athletes with expedited citizenship often do not expect those athletes to make longer-term contributions to their countries. Many of these athletes are motivated by the chance to compete in the Olympics even though their performance is not quite strong enough to make their national teams. It is not the fastest distance runners from Kenya who are enticed by Qatar’s citizenship, but rather those who are not quite as fast as the top-tier Kenyans who regularly medal in distance running.
These countries are, in many ways, just trying to make up for the natural advantages given to the United States by its status as a nation of immigrants. The United States attracts immigrants through family ties, employment and with humanitarian resettlement, and 48 members of Team USA bear witness to the fruits of that openness. It is critical to note that these athletes wanted to be Americans first, before they became Olympians. They immigrated through family members, or naturalized through military service, or were brought here by parents as young children. They come from 30 different countries. They came to the United States as defectors (Danell Leyva), refugees (Enkelejda Shehaj and Charles Jock), and orphans (Nick Delpopolo). At the time the United States admitted them, it did not know that they were future Olympians, but it welcomed them anyway.
The United States does not only feature citizens born outside the United States on its team. Many, like, are the U.S.-born children of immigrants. These immigrant parents came to America to make a better life and provide their children with opportunities they didn’t have. Their children, in turn, are competing at the highest levels of sport on behalf of their country of birth—and but for the initiative and drive of their parents, they would have marched into Olympic Stadium behind another country’s flag, such as Haiti or Nicaragua, in the case of taekwondo champion Steve Lopez.
Our country’s Olympic success, as much as our scientific or economic success, are tied with our openness to immigration. It is no wonder, then, that other countries seek to replicate that success with their own Olympic citizenship efforts.
Reprinted with permission from the August 16, 2016 edition of the The Legal Intelligencer© 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.